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SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate is expected to vote today on an education funding plan that will increase state money for all districts, reduce disparities between rich and poor schools and provide $75 million in tax credits for people who donated to private school scholarships.

The state House voted 73-34 on Monday to send the legislation to the Senate. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who walked the floor of the House after the vote to thank lawmakers, said he will sign it.

"I’m glad it’s passed, it’s a relief for everybody, but it’ll be interesting to see the actual details of the bill that was passed," Decatur Superintendent Paul Fregeau said Monday evening. The plan was hammered out by legislative leaders in closed-door meetings.

Meridian Superintendent Dan Brue said he accepts that some compromise is necessary, although he doesn't support the tax credits, which are part of a five-year pilot program. 

"As a public school administrator, I am not pleased with cracking open the door even a little bit to school vouchers, but sometimes those things are inevitable," Brue said. "In my view, it's taking away resources from public schools."

"I have been complaining about them not compromising so it's hard for me to argue now if they are compromising. I won't like every part of it, but that's the way compromises work," he said.

Fregeau and Brue are among Macon County educators who have expressed increasing concerns about the uncertainty of state funding, with several superintendents saying they would run out of cash by early next year or sooner.

The evening vote came after the same measure was defeated earlier Monday, largely because of objections to the tax credits raised by teacher unions. It also occurred minutes after lawmakers failed to override Rauner's changes to a separate plan preferred by the unions, leaving lawmakers with no other alternatives to quickly get money to more than 800 districts starting a new school year.

State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, voted no, while state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, supported the legislation. State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, did not vote.

Supporters said the measure they ultimately approved is imperfect, but that it will begin to fix a state funding system that is widely considered the most inequitable in the country.

"Everybody wins in this conversation," said Democratic Rep. Will Davis, the bill's sponsor.

It was a significant moment of compromise in a state where the Republican governor and Democratic-controlled legislature have repeatedly clashed, leading to the nation's longest state budget impasse and putting money for schools at risk.

Legislators from both parties have said for years that the way Illinois distributes education money is unfair, but they've been unable to agree on how change it. The state budget lawmakers approved last month, ending a more than 2-year impasse, required for the first time that the formula be changed.

Without a plan in place, districts haven't received state aid. Although school officials have said they will be able to open classrooms for the new school year, many districts have worried they would run out of money if the impasse wasn't resolved soon.

In Decatur, Fregeau has said the district would consider borrowing against future tax revenue if lawmakers can't provide funding by the time its reserves run out in mid-November.

Brue also said his district, which has frozen spending for everything but essentials, would also consider that option. Brue said his district could make it to Jan. 15 with its current financial resources before considering borrowing.

Cerro Gordo Superintendent Brett Robinson also said his district would run out of money by early January.

Mount Zion Superintendent Travis Roundcount has said the district has solid financial reserves, and administrators have not determined when their “crisis point” would be.

Shelbyville Public Schools Superintendent Denise Bence said her district is in a good position after receiving the first half of its property tax levy money early, and it also can draw on reserves.

“We would likely have to borrow, but we could make it through the year at this point,” Bence said.

Bence said educators were growing increasingly frustrated with the state’s school funding system and for letting the issue linger into the new school year. Shelbyville has already missed two state aid payment for this fiscal year.

“You wonder how long they are going to let it go on,” she said. “We’ve been at this foundation level of funding for seven years. That’s seven years with the same base funding for students while costs continue to rise. There are other schools that might have to make some hard choices. It’s really hard in the middle of the school year to cut services.”

The plan approved Monday was negotiated by legislative leaders in closed-door meetings over recent days. It provides money to help Chicago Public Schools pay its pension costs, as the state does for other districts, and allows Chicago to raise property taxes by $120 million to help reduce its massive unfunded pension liabilities.

Illinois' largest teacher unions called on lawmakers to oppose the plan because of the tax credits. They accused Rauner, who's seeking a second term in 2018, of using students "as leverage for private school tax credits" when he used his veto powers on an earlier school funding bill.

"It's clearer than ever that this Governor does not prioritize public schools, and we must fight for one who does in 2018," Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said after the measure passed.

The new tax credit would be worth 75 percent of a taxpayer's annual contributions to a scholarship fund, with a maximum credit of $1 million annually. The money may be donated to a specific school or "subset" of schools, but not to a specific student. The credit is a five-year pilot program.

Students receiving the scholarships must have a total household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 annually for a family of four. Religious leaders, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago, have lobbied for the credit.

Earlier this year, Democrats approved separate legislation that overhauled Illinois' school funding system. But Rauner used his veto authority to make changes to the legislation, saying it provided too much money to financially struggling Chicago Public Schools.

The Illinois Senate voted to override Rauner's changes, with one Republican joining majority Democrats. After putting off a vote because of leaders' negotiations on a fresh deal, the House tried unsuccessfully late Monday to follow suit. The override required a three-fifths majority, or 71 yes votes. It received 63 yes votes.

Lawmakers then voted a second time on the newest funding plan, with several lawmakers who a short time earlier had voted "no" changing to "yes" votes.

Herald & Review staff members John Reidy, Allison Petty and Sharon Barricklow contributed to this story. | (217) 421-6973


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